All-woman Sufi music troupe from Iran stumped by Kashmir girl band controversy
Lotfi had her own reasons to look up religious scriptures to find out whether women are indeed prohibited from playing music in public. She and five members of her group are also used to restrictions on performances back home. For instance, if a woman sings alone, it can only be for an exclusively female audience. However, if she plays an instrument alone, it can be before a mixed group.
"These are unwritten rules that society makes. Can't the Kashmiri girls even perform before an all-woman audience?" Lotfi asks, unable to suppress the surprise and concern in her voice. "I don't like being told what to do," says Lotfi, who is dressed in a black top, trousers and a sweater, and is just back from shopping at Fabindia.
In Iran, she says, the gender restrictions on the audience have not stopped girl bands from mushrooming. "They are growing every day," she says. Which in turn seems to have loosened a few shackles. "If there are two-three women performing together, the need for an all-female audience is often relaxed," says Roshanak Noone, who plays the santoor in the troupe.
Lotfi says she chose the name 'Ghazal' to underline the gender of the group more than anything else. In Persian, it means a woman with beautiful eyes. It is also a common name in Iran. "And Ghazal also has an instant Indian connect," she adds with a smile.
The restrictions in Iran notwithstanding, Ghazal has played for mixed audiences in the embassies of Teheran, thanks principally to Lotfi's contacts as the general manager of the symphonic orchestra in the Australian embassy there. It is a young troupe, just a year-and-a-half old but most members are veterans, having played for groups comprising both men and women.
Elmira, who plays the Kamancheh, a bowed string instrument, is the sole woman member from a mixed troupe and has countless performances for all kinds of audiences under her belt.
Sara, the percussionist, also performs in a group with both men and women members. "There are some problems but that has never stopped us. Actually, there is no bar if a woman plays in front of men, it is only singing, that too solo, which is slightly problematic. However, if there are two-three women together they can perform even in front of men. But there are other practical problems. For example, we can't sell tickets to men," Sara says.
She and Elmira are moved by the story of the Kashmiri girls. "This happened in India?" Elmira asks in disbelief, and then silently nods in dismay.
All six women in the troupe are professionals in their own right, some of them pursuing careers beyond music too. Mozhgana Gharasu, who plays the Tombak, a goblet drum, is a lifeguard. Her sister Mariam has a doctorate in ethnomusicology and also teaches French and English in the university. Elmira is a mechanical engineer. But it is clearly music that binds them together with almost all of them coming from families which have one or more musicians.
"It is our families that have encouraged and motivated us. That is partly why we do not have to think too much about the religious restrictions," Lotfi said, recounting her last visit to India two years back as part of her husband's music troupe.
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